Early detection saves lives

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. The aim is to make South Africans more aware of this illness.

Not all lumps cancerous
Breast cancer forms within the breast tissue or lymph nodes of the breast. The first sign of the disease is usually a lump in the breast, but not all lumps in the breast are cancerous. In fact, nine out of 10 lumps are benign or not related to cancer.

While this may be so, it is vital for everyone who develops a lump in their breast to have it checked by a doctor immediately. This is because treatment should be started as soon as possible.

In the later stages, breast cancer can spread quickly to other organs in the body, becoming increasingly more hazardous to one’s health. Some forms of the disease spread more aggressively than others.

Early treatment can help to prevent the spread and, in many cases, even completely eliminate the disease.

All women at risk
Women can develop breast cancer any time after puberty although it is uncommon in young people. Older women have a much higher risk of developing cancer. The Cancer Association of South Africa says that, although satisfactory statistics are not yet available, there does seem to be an increase in the number of individuals getting cancers in South Africa and there are more younger people developing the disease.

Therefore, it is crucial for all women over the age of 20 to ­examine their breasts once a month for any changes. Women over 40 should go for a mammogram once a year. This is a special X-ray ­screening test for cancer. A mammogram can help in the early detection of breast cancer.

All women are at risk of ­developing breast cancer. There are a number of factors that increase the risk of developing the disease:

  • Age (women over the age of 50);
  • Genetics (women whose mother or sister have had breast cancer, especially before menopause, have an increased chance of developing breast cancer);
  • Women who have never had children or who had their first child after the age of 40;
  • Women who started menstruating early, before their teens; and
  • Women who reach menopause later in life (after the age of 50).

An unhealthy lifestyle plays a role in the development of cancer in some people. A diet high in animal fats, heavy drinking, stress, obesity and a sedentary lifestyle may all increase risks.

It is wise to exercise, cut back on drinking, manage stress better, reduce animal fats and eat more vegetables and wholegrains.
It should be noted that breast cancer is a disease that is not only confined to women. A man’s breast tissues are the same as a woman’s and some men develop the disease. It is much rarer in males, who make up only about 1% of breast cancer cases.

What to watch for
What should you look for when examining your breasts? You should check for any changes, including:

  • The development of a lump;
  • A discharge other than breast milk;
  • Swelling;
  • Skin irritation or dimpling;
  • Nipple abnormalities such as redness, pain, scaliness and inversion.

These could all be possible indications of breast cancer. If you are worried about your breasts, get to a doctor. Nine out of 10 breast lumps are noticed by women themselves. It is, therefore, important for a woman to examine herself regularly. For a good guide on how to do a self-examination visit the website www.breastcancer.co.za.

There are different forms of breast cancer and some are more aggressive and dangerous than ­others.

The type and course of the disease will vary from patient to patient and have a different effect on their lives. Some women will be successfully treated, whereas others may have a recurrence and need follow-up treatment.

Each breast cancer sufferer will be treated according to their unique situation, what type of breast cancer they have and how far the disease has progressed.

There are three main forms of treatment — radiotherapy, chemotherapy and surgery. Usually a combination of these treatments is used.

The treatment for breast cancer has become so advanced that it is often unnecessary for the patient to have her breast or breasts completely removed (mastectomy). Today, small lumps can often be surgically removed without having to resort to a mastectomy.

But for treatment to be effective it is vital that the disease is discovered early, so women should take responsibility for their health.

For any GEMS member queries please phone the GEMS call centre on 0860 00 4367 or visit our website at www.gems.gov.za. GEMS will assist you in every way possible to ensure your family’s health and wellbeing
References: www.cansa.co.za, www.breastcancer.co.za, www.makingsense.co.za, www.pinkdrive.co.za

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